Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, Hamish Hamilton, Publisher, Setting, short stories, Zsuzsi Gartner

‘Better Living Through Plastic Explosives’ by Zsuzsi Gartner


Fiction – hardcover; Hamish Hamilton; 216 pages; 2011.

In September and October I had great pleasure in reading a bounty of Canadian fiction — which had been shortlisted for the 2011 Giller Prize — as part of the Shadow Giller Prize. In a rush to select our “winner” I never got around to reviewing Zsuzsi Gartner’s oh-so intriguing Better Living Through Plastic Explosives. And so now, two months down the line, I am making up for lost time.

Bold, edgy satire

Unlike my fellow jurors, I very much enjoyed this intriguing collection of short stories. I liked the boldness of Gartner’s ideas, the edginess of her subject matter and the satirical voice in which she writes much of her prose.

Each of the 10 charmingly named stories  — Summer of the Flesh Eater; Once, We Were Swedes; Floating Like a Goat; Investment Results May Vary; The Adopted Chinese Daughters’ Rebellion; What Are We Doing Here?; Someone Is Killing the Great Motivational Speakers of Amerika; Mister Kakami; We Come in Peace; and Better Living Through Plastic Explosives — offers a subversive take on modern life in North America.

And while they are firmly rooted in reality — our obsession with material goods and brand name items, our desire to be better (richer?) than our neighbours, our quest to drink more and more coffee from chain stores, our fear of terrorism, our narcissism (shall I go on?) — Gartner isn’t afraid to spice things up with a little off-the-wall kookiness thrown in for good measure. For instance, in the penultimate story, We Come in Peace, five aliens inhabit the bodies of an assorted collection of teenagers living in a suburban cul-de-sac in North Vancouver. Their mission? To discover the zenith of each human sense. (“Barman’s best guess was four years; Elyson thought a week or so should do it.”)

In Once, We Were Swedes, my favourite collection in the book (I’ve read this particular piece three times now), a high-flying foreign correspondent becomes a tutor teaching “journalism 101” to teenage oiks — and hates it. This is a realistic enough story about the world dumbing down until Gartner adds her signature “twist”: the 36-year-old teacher finds herself ageing rapidly (she is diagnosed with early menopause) while her husband not only refuses to grow up, he grows younger.

An unusual prose style

Admittedly, this sort of thing won’t appeal to everyone. Nor will Gartner’s occasional tendency to write in an overly verbose, convoluted manner. It took me awhile to get into the swing of her style. When I read the first story, Summer of the Flesh Eater — about the unusual lengths some people will go to sort out the neighbours from hell — I was a bit flummoxed. It wasn’t the subject matter that threw me, but the way she constructed her sentences. I’m not sure whether I simply got used to her style, because by story two it no longer bothered me, or whether it’s just the first story that is written in such an odd way.

But there’s a lovely vein of black comedy running throughout. And her social commentary and her satire is right on the money.

For me, the way in which she takes the surreal aspects of real life and heightens them further appeals deeply. She reminds me very much of Chuck Palahniuk, who is one of my favourite authors. If you like his work, it’s pretty much assured you’ll like Zsuzsi Gartner’s, too.

For two more takes on this novel, courtesy of my fellow Shadow Giller jurors, please see KevinfromCanada’s review and The Mookse and the Gripes’ review.